Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

13 October 2011

Scottish independence could free England to be herself

Scottish independence could be just the tonic England needs. It could set England free to be what she wants to be, to pursue her destiny and return to her roots. In fact, it could free England to be what many would like Great Britain to be today but can’t be, because it is being pulled in too many contrary directions.

England always has been and still is the national core of Great Britain and the United Kingdom: the constitution, parliament, monarchy and established religion of Great Britain and the UK are a continuation of the historic constitutional foundations, parliament, monarchy and established religion of England prior to the union with Scotland in 1707. This continuity is the underlying, ‘objective’ reason why English people traditionally have regarded ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ as synonymous: they have re-imagined Great Britain, and to a lesser extent the UK, as an extension of the English nation across the whole territory of Britain (and Ireland) – as ‘Greater England’. And this is because, at a fundamental, constitutional, level, Great Britain was a continuation of the historic English nation, except with Scotland grafted in.

Through the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland started to be governed via the constitutional and parliamentary arrangements that prevailed for England and Wales, which remained unchanged. This was so much the case that some Scottish MPs at the time were amazed that the Scottish parliament was simply abolished and that the existing English parliament carried on in exactly the same way as before, except with the addition of the Scottish MPs. This was not the creation of a new British nation, distinct from the two nations from which it was formed, but an effective take-over of Scotland by the English state. In modern corporate terms, it was not a merger of equals; and though the new merged company might take on a new brand, it retains the same culture and corporate governance practices – and power structures – of the larger, acquiring entity. Or to take a political analogy from modern times, when West and East Germany were reunified, there were many in the former DDR who hoped this would result in a completely new German state, with a new constitution and identity. Instead, reunification simply took the form of adding the federal states of the DDR in to the existing Bundesrepublik: the identity of the state remained fundamentally that of the former West Germany, even though the united Germany had been created from the merger of two previously separate nations.

Over time, many people both south and north of the Scottish border did begin to see Great Britain as a nation in its own right and ‘British’ as their primary national identity, to which the distinct identities of ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and, to a lesser extent, (Northern) Irish were subordinate and secondary. Perhaps the high point of this British nation was the Second World War, which brought people together from across the UK in a shared fight for freedom from tyranny. In the post-war period, this national-British solidarity took expression in the welfare state and nationalised industries, which were the embodiment of much that the British people had fought for in the war: a fairer, more equal society, with national, publicly owned assets and services designed to ensure productive employment and protection against chronic poverty for all. Alongside this, undeniably, One Nation Conservatism was also influential in fostering the sense that all in Britain were engaged in a shared effort to build a more prosperous, stronger nation; and that the wealthier sections of British society had a responsibility towards the less well-off, whichever part of Britain they lived in.

Since then, and particularly over the last 30 years or so, most of that national-British solidarity and sense of being ‘in it together’ – to quote a phrase – has been eroded, probably irrevocably. It isn’t only devolution that has brought this about. Devolution was in many respects a product of the undermining of a shared sense of national purpose that had taken place over the previous 20 years; but it also undoubtedly accelerated the process of the British nation’s disintegration.

What were the causes of this slow decay? Well, without doubt, the Thatcher government’s assault on the welfare state, the privatisation of the nationalised industries and even the smashing up of union power – unions being another embodiment of the sense of shared commitment to equality and fairness across the UK’s constituent countries – played a considerable role. It has been well documented how the Thatcher revolution contributed to disaffection with the Union in Scotland, as people there strongly objected to the market-economic policies of an ‘English’ Conservative government they had never voted for, and which also chose Scotland to trial the hated Poll Tax.

But the privatisation of state-owned industries, the under-investment in public services and the weakening of the welfare state also loosened the bonds between English people and the British state. English people lost their sense of confidence that the British state belonged to them and was ‘on their side’. If there is ‘no such thing as society’, as Margaret Thatcher once said, can there also be a nation? In other words, the rolling back of the state from the lives of its citizens made Britain less relevant and valuable to English people, and undermined the sense of belonging to a single British nation in which people were prepared to give up more of their hard-earned wealth for the sake of less well-off citizens elsewhere on the island, on the previously safe assumption that the system would take care of one if one needed it to. If it was every man for himself, maybe it should also be England for herself.

Scrolling forward to today, this sense that the British state has abandoned its unwritten promise to treat all its citizens fairly and equally has undoubtedly fuelled the huge resentment in England towards the Barnett Formula: the unequal public-spending formula that enables Scotland and Wales to continue to provide many of the free public, and publicly owned, services of the former British welfare state that have been withdrawn in England. This is of course further exacerbated by a sense of democratic unfairness linked to the fact that the more small-state, market-orientated policies in England have been introduced by Parliament with the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs whose constituents are not affected by them, while the devolved parliament and assembly respectively in those countries have pursued more traditional statist, social-democratic policies. It’s not that England would necessarily have chosen to go down the same social-democratic route as Scotland and Wales if we had had our own parliament, but that we’ve been denied the choice. The British state has pulled away from deep involvement in English public life while denying the English people the freedom to determine their own national priorities. And it compounds this betrayal by lying to the people of England that the old united Britain still exists, and by suppressing references to the England-specific scope of much British legislation and policy, so that English people do not realise how differently and undemocratically they are being treated.

Over and above this situation of fiscal unfairness and democratic disempowerment, the present devolution settlement and English resentment towards it risk tearing apart those essentially English constitutional foundations of the Union. A dual dynamic has increasingly left England without any status or role in the very state that it once viewed as its own. Whereas Scotland and Wales have increasingly established distinct national political and cultural identities (breaking up that sense of a unified Britain of which England thought of itself as the centre), the British establishment has also increasingly sought to suppress the corresponding emergence of a distinct English identity, or at least to restrict ‘Englishness’ to the merely cultural sphere so that it doesn’t express itself in terms of demands for an English-national politics (parliament and government). Such a development would usher in the end of Britain as a nation in its own right, replacing it with some sort of federal or confederal Union of multiple nations or even just a collection of separate, sovereign nations.

I’ve discussed and analysed this dynamic in many previous posts, so I won’t belabour it. However, the essential point I would like to make is that a British Union-state built on the would-be suppression of English political nationhood would ultimately implode because it would undermine its own traditional English foundations: monarchy, Church, parliamentary sovereignty (a principle established through the upheavals of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution in the 17th century), and constitutional and legal principles dating back to Magna Carta in the 13th century. For all their flaws and need of modernisation, English people are deeply attached to these anchors of English tradition and identity. Attempts to strip away these core English elements from the British constitution, motivated by a desire to consolidate an integral British nation to which Scotland and Wales may still wish to belong, will ultimately serve only to undermine the adherence of English people to Great Britain, and their identification as British.

Measures that could bring about such a severing of the organic ties between England and the Union include things like abolishing the Acts of Succession and Settlement, which would probably lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England (because the monarch could then be non-Anglican), and instituting a new British Bill of Rights, which would supersede and hence render constitutionally superfluous core English legal documents such as Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

It seems, however, that repealing or at least fundamentally modifying the Acts of Succession and Settlement – to say nothing of the Acts of Union and the English Bill of Rights – is precisely what David Cameron’s coalition government may have in mind if reports of their intention to allow the monarch to marry a Catholic (proscribed by the Act of Settlement) are to be believed. According to yesterday’s report in the Guardian: “Cameron is . . . proposing that Catholics should continue to be debarred from being head of state [as specified in the Acts of Succession and Settlement], but that anyone who marries a Catholic should not be debarred. The family would be entitled to bring up their children as Catholics as long as heirs do not seek to take the throne as a Catholic”.

If this is what Cameron is really thinking, then it reveals constitutional and ecclesiastical illiteracy of the highest order. There’s an absolutely irreconcilable contradiction here: the temporal head of the Church of England (the monarch), no less, marries a Catholic and then brings up his or her children as Catholics; but then, when it is time for the first-born (male or female, as Cameron is also proposing to scrap primogeniture) to inherit the throne, they are expected to renounce their faith (and become Anglican, or not?). Here’s how this does not stack up:

  1. The monarch as temporal Head of the Church of England cannot possibly marry a Catholic and bring up his children as Catholics. How can someone who stands guarantor for the fact that the faith of the land will remain Anglican (fidei defensor) bring up his own children in another faith? He or she is head not only of the Church of England but of his own spouse and family, so his or her faith must be the faith in which the family lives and is raised.
  2. However, in order to be permitted by the Catholic Church to marry a Catholic, the husband and wife would have to give a commitment that the children would indeed be brought up as Catholics. Therefore, the Head of the Church of England, and king or queen of England – or Great Britain, if you prefer – would be subject to the authority of the Church of Rome in spiritual and domestic matters, as would his or her heirs.
  3. Is it then reasonable or even possible to expect the rightful successor to the throne to renounce the faith they have been brought up in in order to inherit the crown? Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church: if you’ve been baptised and confirmed in the Catholic faith, you remain subject to the spiritual authority of the Church, and are considered by the Church as remaining one of her members, no matter what alternative declaration of faith or unbelief you might subsequently make. It’s up to the Church to unmake a Catholic through excommunication. And you can’t decide to allow the monarch to marry outside of the Church of England, and allow first-born females to automatically become first in line to the throne, on the grounds of non-discrimination and then decide to debar first-born, Catholic children of the monarch from inheriting the crown.

As stated above, this is clearly an absurd plan; but that won’t stop constitutionally illiterate and anglophobic politicians from seeking to implement it. These proposals would inevitably lead to the disestablishment of the Church and the abolition of the provision that the Head of State must be Anglican, in order for him or her to be able to serve as temporal Head of the Anglican Church. And all of a sudden, the entire, English constitutional foundations of the British state would crumble: no longer officially an (Anglican-) Christian country; no longer at root the continuation of the historic English state; the monarch no longer inheriting the sacred duty of English kings to ensure that the Church (of England) remains the established religion and that the (Protestant) faith is upheld throughout the greater British realm; the monarch no longer having an absolute claim to the loyalty and devotion of his or her subjects, which is founded on the monarch’s fidelity to this sacred oversight over the kingdom’s spiritual weal; and similarly, the very sovereignty of Parliament fatally undermined because Parliament’s absolute power and moral authority derives from that of the monarch (it’s the sovereignty of the crown-in-Parliament), which in turn derives from the monarch’s status as God’s appointed representative for England / Great Britain: the roles of head of state and Head of the Church being absolutely indivisible.

So, no Act of Succession / Settlement = no Christian underpinning for the state = no basis for preserving the monarch and Parliament as currently constituted = no England as the heart beat and core identity of Great Britain.

But if Great Britain were no longer fundamentally a continuation of England’s most cherished traditions and constitutional foundations, why would English people wish to remain part of it?

Why undertake such a radical overhaul of the English foundations of the British state now, at this point in history, when the existence of Great Britain is threatened as never before by the drive towards Scottish independence? Is Cameron’s urge to eliminate marital inequalities of every kind (the debarring of gay persons from marriage (as underpinned by the Christian foundations of English law), and the debarring of kings and queens of the UK from marrying non-Anglicans) in fact at heart motivated by a wish to recast and transform for ever that other marriage of unequals: Great Britain itself? Why, after all, should a British monarch, and his or her family, have to belong to the English religion at all? Why could they not be Scottish Presbyterian, Welsh-Non-Conformist, Catholic or, while we’re at it, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or of no religion at all? Why should the Church of England be hard-wired into the British state as its official religion by means of this ‘discriminatory’ law that prevents the king or queen from marrying, and indeed being, a non-Anglican? Why indeed?

Cameron, as we know, is desperate to avoid being the last prime minister of the UK as currently constituted, i.e. as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But by tearing out the English foundations of the state, he ironically risks de-constituting the UK. A United Kingdom, even some sort of secular British nation, might well emerge from the carnage; but it would not be the UK that Cameron ostensibly seeks to defend: one that has England at its heart, and which English people, still today, hold dear to their heart.

But if it is those core English elements of Great Britain that one is seeking to preserve and carry forward to posterity – monarchy, Church, Parliament and English liberties – why go to all the trouble of re-casting them as something new, secularised and non-English British when it looks increasingly likely that Scotland will decide to leave the UK anyway? And perhaps that would be the best thing for all concerned. Perhaps it would enable England to retain its cherished traditions, institutions and constitutional foundations as English – and as part of a renewed English settlement – rather than trying to fall over backwards to create a de-anglicised settlement that the Scots don’t want anyway.

I’m not saying that England should maintain all of her ancient constitutional foundations unchanged should Scotland decide to go her own way. But it would be England’s choice whether to remain a Christian kingdom and how to translate that core identity into her laws, customs and institutions. Personally, I envision an England that would return to and deepen its Christian roots, perhaps going further than the historic Anglican settlement to reconnect with her ancient Catholic, but not necessarily Roman Catholic, heritage. At the very least, the new England would be a country where we could once again be proud of our Christian and non-Christian, English traditions, and not be ashamed of them or afraid to express them openly out of some misplaced desire not to offend our non-Christian and non-English fellow citizens – but equally not foisting our beliefs and practices on to others in a way that fails to respect their liberty and freedom of conscience. As for the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, this is something that probably does need to be transformed or at least redefined, such that the sovereignty of parliament more truly expresses, and is subject to, the will of the people, rather than being simply heir to the sovereign right of kings over and above the people.

But the point is it would be England’s choice how to take forward England’s constitution to an English future. And this could ironically be the surest way to preserve what many unionists now cherish most profoundly about Great Britain and the UK.

By contrast, Cameron’s way of de-christianising and de-anglicising the British state could be the quickest path to its total implosion.

  English parliament



  1. 90% of the population of the United Kingdom would, I’m pretty sure, regard disestablishment of the Church of England and the possibility of a non-CofE, even non-Christian UK head of state as sublimely irrelevant to the future of the country; whereas the present succession law is indefensibly and irrationally discriminatory, whatever its distant origins. The post’s lofty dismissal of “some sort of federal or confederal Union of multiple nations” as signalling the end of Britain as a country flies in the face of a perfectly practical and democratic solution to the problem created by the growth of support in Scotland for total independence. The threat to the future integrity of the UK arises from resentment in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland of constant interference in their domestic affairs by England, not from any serious or well-founded grievance in England arising from the Barnett formula (how many English people have the slightest idea what that is?) or from resistance to support by the richer English for their less prosperous fellow-countrymen, as the post suggests. It’s unseemly for the richest and most powerful of the four UK nations to complain that the present constitional arrangements are ‘unfair’ to England when the unfairness is demonstrably in England’s virtually untrammelled dominance over the rest of the UK. I offer a much more positive and constructive (and less whingeing) solution at

    Comment by Brian Barder — 13 October 2011 @ 11.28 am | Reply

    • “90% of the population of the United Kingdom would, I’m pretty sure, regard disestablishment of the Church of England and the possibility of a non-CofE, even non-Christian UK head of state as sublimely irrelevant to the future of the country; whereas the present succession law is indefensibly and irrationally discriminatory, whatever its distant origins.”

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. I’m sure that many in Scotland would agree with you, but not supporters of the Union in Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Once people realised what that meant, I think it would begin to matter to them: no Christian coronation ceremony and oath; no Christian, and ultimately not any fundamental, justification for having a monarchy at all rather than an elected president; England / Britain no longer in any real sense a Christian country; theoretical possibility of a Muslim monarch; no longer any core, historic English foundations to the British state (final doing away of (the idea of) England as a distinct kingdom); etc.

      “The post’s lofty dismissal of “some sort of federal or confederal Union of multiple nations” as signalling the end of Britain as a country flies in the face of a perfectly practical and democratic solution to the problem created by the growth of support in Scotland for total independence.”

      You may not realise that I’ve written extensively in support of the idea of a federal or confederal UK on other blog sites; for instance, most recently, here. My own personal view is that it’s too late for the federal option, which is unattractive to the Scots; but there is a window of opportunity for confederalism. However, as the post I’ve just linked to makes clear, I believe that the idea of “Britain as a country” – i.e. of a British nation – is inevitably predicated on the denial of nationhood to England. A federal option might just preserve the idea of a sovereign British nation-state, but at the price of denying national sovereignty to each of its constituent parts. A confederal solution, for me, is predicated on each country being sovereign and choosing to delegate certain powers upwards to a confederal government. That could work if it satisfied the aspirations of each nation for sovereign self-rule.

      “The threat to the future integrity of the UK arises from resentment in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland of constant interference in their domestic affairs by England, not from any serious or well-founded grievance in England arising from the Barnett formula (how many English people have the slightest idea what that is?) or from resistance to support by the richer English for their less prosperous fellow-countrymen, as the post suggests.”

      Again, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think you’re 15 to 20 years behind the curve on this one. Lots of people in England know about the Barnett Formula or, if they don’t know of it by name, they know / believe that England is getting a raw deal compared with their non-English brethren. And the facts support that: Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, in ascending order, get far more public spending per head than their English compatriots (apart from London), and that includes relatively poor areas of England such as the North-East. I think you might have a somewhat distorted (South of England-based?) impression of the level of prosperity enjoyed by most English people. There’s an increasing amount of hardship in England, as well as in the UK’s other nations, and people are understandably confused and annoyed when they see benefits being enjoyed by those other countries that they could desperately do with in England. I won’t go over the list, because it’s so familiar – and that’s the point, people do know about it.

      “It’s unseemly for the richest and most powerful of the four UK nations to complain that the present constitional arrangements are ‘unfair’ to England when the unfairness is demonstrably in England’s virtually untrammelled dominance over the rest of the UK.”

      Well, to be honest, I think that’s nonsense. ‘England’ as such has no dominance over anybody, because England doesn’t exist in political terms. Of course the present constitutional arrangements are unfair to England: no parliament; no national voice; not even any choice of whether we want our own parliament, unlike the choice that was given to the UK’s other nations (with the possible exception of Cornwall); fiscal discrimination; no PR for our national elections (unlike those for the devolved parliaments), so we’re lumbered with unrepresentative, over-powerful political parties that can ignore the popular will and introduce measures that no one’s voted for (such as the English NHS Bill: the latest example).

      It’s not England that exercises ‘untrammelled dominance’ over the rest of the UK, it’s Britain and the Union state by virtue of being the sovereign power. That state doesn’t govern in the interests of England (where do you get that from?): it governs in its own perceived interests, usually at the expense of England, both in terms of the tax take and distribution, and in the sense that England is given up to the market (privatisation of English NHS, of Higher Education, of schools, etc.), so that government can reduce its financial and social investment in England while looking after corporate and financial vested interests.

      I’m assuming that your “more positive and constructive (and less whingeing) solution” – which I’ll read and comment on in due course – does envisage some sort of constitutional and political existence for, let alone fairness towards, England. But I beg to differ: with all due respect, I feel it’s you who’ve done the whingeing here.

      Comment by David — 13 October 2011 @ 12.21 pm | Reply

      • However, 90% of the population have been educated under the influence of Emanuel Kant who taught that religion and politics should be kept separate and only that which can be proven scientifically is legitimate for public debate, nominal vs phenomenal. First teach the 90% in our schools about these different worldviews and the distinct truth claims of Christendom from the Protestant perspective before claiming their views as your mandate. And here in lies the rub. You will teach through one worldview (lens) or the other. Currently the dominant lens in our schools is the atheistic pluralist secular whose promotion of radical feminism continues unabated however, to change that worldview will take a cultural shift. These shifts take cultivation. This requires preparing the soil thorough education of a particular worldview, patience and then fruitfulness. Pluralism inevitably has a limited shelf life. A new generation will see the nonsense of a truth claim that claims all truths are equally valid so none are valid. They will seek and find something concrete on which to define their purpose and meaning. Anarchy, broken families, and ambiguous sexuality will not satisfy people who are naturally inclined to love, protect and nurture their children. A deep rooted set of beliefs (religion) are essential to mankind. The question is which religion is going to make that cultural shift? Which religion is fruitful, dogmatic and zealous? These are the answers that will provide your long view.

        Comment by creditaction — 29 October 2011 @ 6.30 am

  2. Great post! And very true.

    Comment by kp1960 — 13 October 2011 @ 4.07 pm | Reply

  3. Brian – I have to agree with David again- everything that we respect, and love about being English is an outcome of our Christian heritage – I am a pagan, and I still say that. The joy of the Church of England is that it is not an evangelical church, it is a church of state and people, and (dare I say it) not that much formal religion. Plus there is so much of the old country religious practices bound up with the church ritual and festivals that even I, a pagan, can feel almost at home!!

    YOU might not think that most would care, but like most political people you seem to live in a glass bubble – learn to listen to what we are saying, in the pubs, in the coffee shops in our homes and down the High Street. You and yours, predicted that no one would care about the death of the Queen Mothers, and you were confounded. You didn’t learn, and confidently predicted the same lack of interest in William’s wedding, and you were made to look foolish again. Learn to listen or you are finished.

    And you know what Brian, I don’t give a tinker’s cuss about what Scotland thinks,feels or wants anymore; the idea that the needs and wishes of 60 million must be over ridden by a mere five million of the permanently offended is the very thing that is stoking the fires under English Nationalism.

    Scottish Independence? Great stuff, go for it, and don’t forget to close the door politely when you leave; we don’t want you coming back and spoiling the party 🙂

    Comment by Josie — 14 October 2011 @ 5.41 am | Reply

    • I am repelled by the ugly strain of hostility to Scotland and the Scots that infects and corrupts so much English nationalism. There is no possible justification for it, and it helps to discredit, in the eyes of many British (including English) people, the case for movement to an eventual UK federation, which constitutes the only compelling rationale for a parliament and government for England.

      Comment by Brian Barder — 15 October 2011 @ 10.10 am | Reply

      • Where’s the hostility to Scotland in what I’ve written? I can’t speak for the people commenting. My policy is to let all comments through unless they’re obscene, irrelevant or insulting, which I don’t think they are, in this case.

        Comment by David — 16 October 2011 @ 9.23 am

      • “The only compelling rationale for a parliament and government for England”.

        What about principles of national self-determination? Doesn’t England, an old historic nation have as much right to that as any other nation?

        I believe in Scottish and Welsh independence, because I believe independence is the best thing for England too.

        Comment by englishinengland — 16 October 2011 @ 4.26 pm

  4. Sorry David, but as Brian doesnt say and I will, it is just another rant of yours – did you forgrt this wasnt the CEP site you were posting to?..

    Comment by Guest — 26 October 2011 @ 8.02 pm | Reply

    • It’s easy to dismiss something in general terms as a ‘rant’ – and I admit I have my ranting tendencies – but less easy to argue particular points. Do you take issue with anything in particular?

      Comment by David — 27 October 2011 @ 9.20 am | Reply

      • @englishinengland: There’s no generally recognised principle of self-determination applicable to parts of a sovereign independent state, for the obvious reason that recognition of such a principle would imply the fragmentation of dozens of states, leading to general international chaos. You were correct in referring to self-determination as a principle, not a right — see the UN Charter — but wrong to ask whether England has “as much right to it as any other nation”. England has no more ‘right’ to ‘self-determination’ than, say, Louisiana, even if you think that self-determination and independence are the same thing (they are not). However, it’s inconceivable in the modern world that if Scotland opted by a significant majority for full independence, and if mutually satisfactory terms for secession could be negotiated with the rest of the UK, the UK would even think about trying to prevent Scotland seceding by the use of force. Times have changed since the American civil war!

        I don’t think the concept of independence can meaningfully be applied to England, since England is already the dominant nation in the United Kingdom and in no sense dependent on anyone else of or from whom to become ‘independent’. I take you to mean merely that England would in your opinion be “better off” in some sense if the UK were to disintegrate and the other three nations were no longer to be part of the same sovereign state as England. That’s certainly an opinion to which you are entitled; I doubt, though, whether it is widely shared, and it’s certainly not mine.

        Comment by Brian Barder — 11 November 2011 @ 9.11 pm

      • Well, Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) reads: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”. So if the English are a ‘people’ in this sense, they do have a universally recognised right of self-determination. That’s probably why the Union state does its utmost to suppress any concept or sense of English nationhood: so long as it can deny that the English are a people, or national community, it can pretend they have no right to self-determination.

        And you’re quite wrong when you say that “England is already the dominant nation in the United Kingdom”, and in fact, you completely contradict yourself in so saying, because you begin your comment by saying England is just a “part[s] of a sovereign independent state”. So it’s the UK that is the dominant power. England not only has no power as such but no status: there is no England to be dominant. So yes, you can deny that English independence would mean anything; but that’s only because you subsume England within the UK, which is precisely what the Union establishment does to deny England nation status and national self-determination.

        Comment by David — 12 November 2011 @ 8.24 am

      • @David: The (admittedly pretty arid) argument about whether self-determination is a right or a principle had some significance in the era of decolonisation, and was settled at that time by the reference to it in the UN Charter, the supreme instrument of international law, as a principle, not a right. Other lesser documents and declarations have, as you point out, subsequently described it as a right, and ascribed it to ‘peoples’, providing lots of opportunity for international lawyers to earn an honest living by disputing what, if anything, that means, but it’s really academic in the real world. Not many governments would accept that it amounts to a legal, justiciable ‘right’ of (e.g.) the Basque people, the Catalans, the Northern Ireland Protestants, the people of Cornwall, the Québecois, the Iroquois, or South Dakota unilaterally to declare themselves independent, even if you make the dubious assumption that self-determination and independence are the same thing. The plain fact is that if a significant majority of Scots vote in a properly conducted referendum for independence for Scotland, and if the terms of Scottish secession can be agreed between the Scots and the rest of the UK, no-one is going to resort to the use of force to try to prevent it, whether it’s an exercise of a “right” to “self-determination” or an example of the “principle” of “self-determination” or nothing to do with either.

        There’s no contradiction in anything I have written about (1) England’s dominant role among the four UK nations and (2) England being part of a sovereign independent state: both propositions are self-evidently true; whereas your contention that “England not only has no power as such but no status: there is no England to be dominant” is equally self-evidently — er, let’s be almost excessively polite, and merely say that it’s wrong, although a stronger word does come to mind. Let’s be generous and take it as a brave attempt at Shavian paradox.

        Comment by Brian Barder — 13 November 2011 @ 5.31 pm

      • I feel your paragraph on self-determination is somewhat obfuscatory. I’d associate the principle of self-determination more closely with democracy than with independence. So it’s not about sanctioning some sort of right to UDI but allowing people, or peoples, to govern themselves democratically in the manner of their choosing.

        There can be no doubt that the English lack any form of national democratic self-expression: no English parliament or government, no representation as a nation in international and inter-governmental forums (in contrast to Scotland and Wales), etc. If you can point to evidence of the contrary, I’d be glad to hear of it. There is of course English law, although this is in most instances technically English and Welsh law (though Welsh legislation will increasingly diverge from English as a result of Wales’ new primary-legislative powers). But it’s a British parliament, and British MPs, that make English law; so in this sense, England is merely a British jurisdiction, not a self-governing nation.

        In what sense, in your view, is England the dominant nation in the UK? This might appear to you to be a somewhat bathetic question, but the issue seems so self-evident to you that you might not think it’s necessary or relevant to spell out the assumptions behind what you say. Yes, I’d accept that England is ‘dominant’ by virtue of sheer numbers: demographically, economically, culturally. But politically? Yes, there are five times more English MPs than MPs from the other UK nations put together. But this is a tired old argument: numbers alone don’t constitute a collectivity – i.e. a nation, in this instance – acting in concert. Specifically, MPs from England don’t act as a body in the name or interests of England, as such; or, on the rare occasions when they might do – such as on England-specific issues such as tuition fees or Foundation Hospitals – they can and have been outvoted by non-English MPs.

        Show me the England that you think exists as a political nation that dominates the other UK nations. I don’t see any evidence for it. On the contrary, what one sees day after day is an absolute avoidance on the part of British politicians of any suggestion that any of their policies or actions are on behalf of an entity known as ‘England’. They completely avoid the very word, let alone any suggestion they could be accountable to an English electorate as such. How can a nation be dominant whose elected representatives and government hate the very sound of the nation’s name?

        Comment by David — 16 November 2011 @ 9.24 am

  5. David, you don’t need to be so confrontational. Your tweet about ‘locking horns’ with me, and ‘challenging’ me about England, is absurdly over-stated when in fact you are making much the same point about the status of England as I have been making (in less lurid language) all over the blogosphere for years, to the point of utter tedium. It’s a matter of established fact, not of opinion, that England, alone of the four nations of the UK, lacks the institutions of internal self-government, and ought to have them — I wouldn’t even quarrel with the attribution of the principle of self-government to the case for an English parliament and, even more importantly, an English government. But the idea that this has anything to do with ‘independence’ for England; or that England needs its own organs of self-government in order to protect itself against the rest of the UK, or the Scots; or that within the UK England is any kind of victim — all that is pure paranoia, laced, if I’m not much mistaken, with a stomach-turning shot of old-fashioned, narrow, xenophobic, little-Englander nationalism. There’s a greatly preferable way of looking at England’s need for what we persist in calling ‘devolution’: it’s because of the increasingly pressing need to complete the process begun by devolution, and currently stalled in our unsustainable semi-federal condition, by moving in gradual stages to an agreed destination, namely a full federation of the four nations in which none of the four will, or will be able to, interfere in the domestic affairs of any of the others. Full federation requires that England govern itself, with organs of self-government corresponding to those now functioning in each of the other three nations.

    The purpose of eventual federation, with all its safeguards for the autonomy of the smaller units, is to establish a durable democratic rfelationship of the four nations with each other and of all four with the federal all-UK centre, thus securing the integrity of the UK as a whole. The present relationships are grossly unbalanced as things stand, almost entirely because of the dominance of England within the UK in its relations with the rest of the UK and with the UK as a whole — a dominance which has stirred up such (perfectly understandable and largely justified) resentment in the rest of the Kingdom that its future as a single country has come under increasing threat. If you can’t contrive to see the state and history of Britain and northern Ireland through Scottish, Irish and Welsh eyes, then it’s not altogether surprising that you can’t recognise the dominance of England when it’s staring you in the face. That dominance is not exercised by a single united homogeneous England acting in its own name through specifically English political or constitutional organs, not because it doesn’t exist but because it hasn’t needed to act in the name of ‘England’: to many, perhaps most, English people, England and Britain are effectively synonymous: English people can’t see why England should have its own newly established parliament and government because they assume that it already has them, in the form of the parliament and government at Westminster, seen as no less the organs through which England governs the UK just because they include a tiny minority of people from the Celtic fringes. That’s what dominance is like.

    There’s no need or justification for accusing ‘British’ politicians of deliberately avoiding any reference to England in their political discourse, still less of “[hating] the very sound of the nation’s name”, a proposition that frankly verges on the unhinged. The great majority of “British politicians” are themselves English, and like the English people who elect most of them, they make no sharp distinction between England and Britain (itself a symptom of English dominance). Moreover, in the absence of elected organs of English self-government, “British politicians” are elected primarily to govern or legislate for the whole UK (or they were until devolution, whose immense significance is still largely unrecognised): even after devolution and the new semi-federal state, British politicians representing English constituencies (or English peers) function mainly at the all-UK federal level, not sitting or working as the government or parliament of England, which don’t exist. They talk and think more in British than in English terms because that’s what they are there for. To bang on all the time about England and the English is merely to fan the flames of Scottish, Irish and Welsh separatism, which together pose a far bigger threat to the survival of our country as an integral, united, multi-national, democratic, independent state than anything else on the planet — a far bigger threat than al-Qaeda, Mr Putin, the bankers or even Mrs Angela Merkel. If you need to put a face on that separatist threat, it bears a striking resemblance to the confidently grinning features of Mr Alex Salmond. I suggest that you ask him if he agrees with you that the centuries-old dominance of England is a figment of my imagination.

    Comment by Brian Barder — 19 November 2011 @ 10.36 pm | Reply

    • Well, I can see we’re going to have to agree to disagree to agree, or something. You’re right, in a way, that we argue for something quite similar (English self-government), although from very different starting points, and assumptions about what is desirable or possible. I don’t think there’s any point picking over the areas of divergence, because we’ve been over them before in various fora.

      I wouldn’t argue that England hasn’t been over-dominant in the past; but I do disagree that this applies in the present. I hardly feel that one should take Mr Salmond’s utterances as a reliable guide to England’s historical or present-day dominance over Scotland, especially if one takes such a dim view of his political motivations as you do. Besides, I’m not sure Mr Salmond does go on about ‘England’ or the ‘English’ in such a pejorative way. I haven’t made a study of his rhetoric, but my impression is that he reserves his critique for the British government and politicians, and if anything seeks to enlist English people’s sympathy with his cause, if only by whipping up English people’s grievances at what you presumably would dismiss as merely perceived or insignificant public-spending inequalities.

      I feel that your view about the present-day supposed dominance of England in the Union rests on precisely the same conflation of England and Britain that you attribute to most English people: do those two countries merely appear to be the same or are they in fact the same? Your wording glosses over this question ambiguously when you say, “to many, perhaps most, English people, England and Britain are effectively synonymous”: linguistic / conceptual conflation, or ‘effectively’ the same because England’s ‘dominance’ takes effect through the actions of the British state and government?

      Well, if you really think the British political establishment is effectively just an organ of English power and dominance, this is rather contradicted by the description and justification, in your final paragraph, of how Westminster-based government and MPs think, talk and act in the name of Britain only (even if delusorily or deceivingly so, given that many / most of their actions are not genuinely UK-wide). If English-elected British MPs were merely an organ of English power, and if ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ were genuinely synonymous in their minds and discourse, then they would not feel the evident aversion that they do feel to uttering the ‘E’ word.

      So when MPs don’t in fact refer to England in their public utterances, what’s going on? Is this an essentially dishonest sleight of hand and case of hypocritical political correctness: ‘don’t say “England” [or, as you put it, “bang on . . . about England”] in case you inadvertently reveal that British governance is in fact English governance, and you then rile the ‘separatist’ [or perhaps they’re just patriotic civic nationalists] Scots’? Or is it, on the contrary, the expression of a genuinely “UK-federal” focus, as you put it: so therefore, not in fact an instance of English dominance but an example of precisely the sort of concern for the wellbeing, good governance and unity of the ‘country’ or Union as a whole you advocate, even if many of the specific policies or legislation they deal with are nothing of the sort (i.e. they are not ‘federal’ or Union-wide)? Or is it that those MPs are themselves blind to their own mistaken conflation of England with Britain, so that even if they are well-intentioned and would-be pan-Union in their perspective and influence, they are in fact merely unwitting, naive instruments of English dominance over the rest of the Union; and their apparently systematic non-use of the word ‘England’ has no pathological, political or linguistic significance beyond their own self-denying engagement in Anglo-British dominance?

      Or is it, rather, that Westminster is not in fact trying to deny its putative Anglocentricity (whether duplicitously or naively), nor in fact making a sincere pan- or proto-federal effort to overcome and transcend its complicity and culpability as part of England’s historical dominance over the UK’s other national communities (i.e. to govern in the interests and name of the UK / Britain as a whole – even if in fact not)? Is it not rather the case that Westminster is engaged in an increasingly desperate fight for self-preservation, which involves resisting tooth and nail any separation between the English and British consciousness upon whose non-distinction its whole sense of (itself as symbolising) a unified British nation depends? Put simply, the British establishment has to suppress any sense of an English nationhood distinct from Britain in order to maintain the supposed legitimacy of the dominance it has enjoyed over both England and the other nations of the UK since at least the start of the Union.

      A separate English polity (not necessarily independent) would in fact be the surest way to end what you consider to be England’s dominance of Britain (the land) via Britain (the state). The distinct, self-governing England I support is, in this sense, the enemy of the historic British England that you yourself seem to regard as synonymous with England itself.

      So there we are again, back via a long circular movement, encompassing a huge difference in perspective, to a point of agreement: that some form of separation between English and British governance would be a good thing. Might I suggest that the difference in emphasis comes down ultimately to my view that the English are basically a ‘good’, civilised people (fair and democratic), and can be trusted to choose their own form of government; whereas you, I feel, share the new England-denying, self-(pre)serving, British-establishment consensus view that the English can’t be trusted and must be hedged in by Union-wide structures of government – whether unitary or federal – that limit their potential, and inclination, to dominance?

      Comment by David — 20 November 2011 @ 1.53 am | Reply

      • I don’t think it’s profitable, or even meaningful, to debate the relative virtues and vices of the English. There are plenty of both, and making such sweeping generalisations is a mug’s game. I don’t think the English have dominated the rest of the UK over the centuries, or that they continue to do so subject to a few newish inhibitions, out of any uniquely English original sin, but principally because England has always been and remains more populous, bigger, richer, better armed and often more bloody-minded than any of the others. The 18-year-old prefect, six footer rugby forward, dominates the 13-year-old new boys not because he’s a natural bully (even if he is) but because he’s bigger and stronger than them. Rules are needed to discourage him from abusing his power, just as a federal structure is needed for the UK to discourage England from exploiting its inherent power as the biggest, richest and strongest unit of the four nations.

        We’re agreed on the need for English self-government, in my case as a necessary but not sufficient condition for an eventual federation which will give the UK its best hope of continuing its life as a single unified independent sovereign state comprising four flourishing and internally self-governing nations. Each one of them, including especially England, benefits enormously from sharing sovereignty with the other three, profiting from the variety and breadth of vision and experience that the union brings to all its citizens. Long may it last.

        No more contributions from me, for a while anyway. I have plenty of other things to do!

        Comment by Brian Barder — 20 November 2011 @ 11.55 am

      • Ditto.

        Comment by David — 20 November 2011 @ 12.04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: